Will the Surabaya church bombings serve as a wake-up call for Indonesia ahead of next year’s presidential elections?

Santa Maria

Santa Maria Tak Bercela Catholic Church, Surabaya

Father Aloysius Widyawan opened the door of an upstairs room in the Santa Maria Tak Bercela Catholic Church. “Three months ago, this room was completely filled with blood, body parts, teeth, even the faces of the bombers, strewn by the force of the blast,” he told me.

He pointed out windows that had been blown out, and the icons of St Luke and St John, damaged but not destroyed. He told me about the two young Catholic boys, Evan and Nathan, aged 12 and eight, who died as a result of their injuries. They had been baptized only two years before and had just received their first Communion. He described the Muslim security guard who lost both eyes and legs in the explosion, and later told the priest: “Please forgive me because I was not able to protect the church and the people, and am unable to work again.” Six people were killed and more than 30 injured in that one church alone.

“Those grim, macabre images describe the sheer horror of the carnage inflicted when a family of suicide bombers hit three churches on a Sunday morning in Surabaya, Indonesia’s second-largest city.”

Those grim, macabre images describe the sheer horror of the carnage inflicted when a family of suicide bombers hit three churches on a Sunday morning in Surabaya, Indonesia’s second-largest city. “That day was very terrible for us. Surabaya was a safe city, with many moderate Muslims. We were surprised,” Fr Aloysius said.

And it was a story repeated, literally minutes later, at the protestant Diponegoro Indonesian Christian Church (GKI Protestant Church) and the Surabaya Centre Pentecostal Church.

After two teenage boys, aged 18 and 16, drove their motorbikes laden with explosives at full speed through the gates of the Catholic church compound at 7.15am on Sunday 13 May, shortly before the second Mass of the day was to start, their mother and two sisters, aged six and eight, wearing veils and niqabs, tried to enter the GKI Protestant Church. The niqab is still unusual in Indonesia, and is associated with ISIS/Daesh in the country, so the security guard was suspicious and stopped them. As he did so, a bomb exploded. According to one account, “there were many bombs strapped to her body, and to her daughters’, including a big bomb on her leg”. The quick-wittedness of the security guard prevented any loss of life except those of the two suicide bombers, although some motorcycles parked nearby were damaged by the blast.

After dropping his wife and daughters at GKI, the father of the family drove a Toyota car into the Surabaya Centre Pentecostal Church at 7.53am, just over half an hour after his teenage sons had attacked the Catholic church. The car hit three people, before ploughing into the entrance of the sanctuary, detonating a bomb. The pastor, Reverend Yonathan Biantoro Wahono, who had been standing at the pulpit making announcements after his sermon, told me he saw a “big red fire and black smoke” and calmly asked the thousand-plus congregation to evacuate. A further small bomb exploded, and the police, when they came, defused a third. Eight people in total died. At the gate, the car hit and killed three people – a 15 year-old boy, Daniel, who had just finished Sunday school; a man who had arrived for the next service; and the security guard, a Muslim, who had worked for the church for 22 years. The boy was run over, but got stuck underneath the car and thus slowed its progress. “He was blown up by the car bomb. All we could find to identify him was his teeth and DNA,” the pastor told me.

Five others died of their injuries later, including 64 year-old Tee Suk Tjien, and her son Agus Trisno Wiyogo. When I visited the church I met Tee Suk Tjien’s sister and other relatives. With remarkable dignity and composure, she told me: “We were very sad that my sister and nephew died. We lived together in the same house. They were very involved in the church. Suk Tjien sang in the Mandarin choir, ran a sewing business, and was a very patient, very kind person.”

That anyone could launch such inhumane attacks is hard to comprehend, yet perhaps equally confounding is the extraordinary faith and courage of the survivors.

That anyone could launch such inhumane attacks is hard enough to comprehend. That parents could strap bombs onto the bodies of their young children is incomprehensible. Yet perhaps equally confounding is the extraordinary faith and courage of the survivors.

When I visited the Surabaya churches earlier this month, almost three months to the day since this tragedy, without exception everyone I met had only one word: “forgiveness”. Fr Aloysius told me that the consistent response from all his parishioners was: “We must love others; we forgive the attackers; we do not want revenge”. Even the mother of young Evan and Nathan said just two days after the bombing: “I have already forgiven the bombers. I don’t want to cry anymore. I know that our Mother Mary also lost her son, Jesus. I forgive.”

“When I visited the Surabaya churches earlier this month, almost three months to the day since this tragedy, without exception everyone I met had only one word: “forgiveness”.”

As he showed me around the church, Fr Aloysius showed me a prayer room. I lit a candle and spent some moments in prayer. I reflected on his words: “For the Church, we must forgive – this is our doctrine. But for an individual, like the mother of these two boys, the ability to forgive is about ‘faith’, not doctrine. None of the victims ever asked ‘why has this happened to me?’ They just said ‘Ok, we forgive them, and we pray for the victims’. There was no anger, no criticism of other religions, only forgiveness. It’s not about religion, it’s about humanity, relationship. Of course they had not conferred with each other. It came from their heart.”

Pastor Wahono’s message was the same. “We don’t understand why this happened, but we continue to teach about forgiveness and love. God’s plan is still good,” he said.

Surabaya Pentecostal

Pastor Wahono at Surabaya Centre Pentecostal Church

Establishing inter-faith harmony to achieve equality, solidarity and unity in Surabaya

But it was not only the courage and forgiveness of the Christians that was inspiring. Within hours of the attacks, Muslims and people of other faiths in Surabaya came to the churches to offer condolences and help clear up the wreckage. And throughout the country, people of different faiths expressed their solidarity. In Jakarta, according to the Catholic Archbishop Ignatius Suharyo, two young Muslim women came, unannounced, to the Cathedral and began to hand out roses, red and white, the colours of Indonesia, to the congregation. Jakarta’s Cathedral, together with Indonesia’s largest Muslim place of worship, the Istiqlal Mosque, which is across the street, has long been a symbol of Indonesia’s pluralism.

“But it was not only the courage and forgiveness of the Christians that was inspiring. Within hours of the attacks, Muslims and people of other faiths in Surabaya came to the churches to offer condolences and help clear up the wreckage.”

The Archdiocese of Jakarta currently has a “good neighbour” campaign, in which its congregations are encouraged to build better relations with Muslims and to strengthen inter-faith harmony. One Catholic priest in a suburb of Jakarta has been particularly successful, building strong relations with the local Muslim cleric who has turned from leading demonstrations against church construction to helping to build churches in a strongly Muslim area. They are building a “unity in diversity” village together, the Archbishop says.

“Our message,” said Fr Aloysius, is simple. “It’s about equality, solidarity and unity. Respect for God means respect for other persons,” he said. Although the church cancelled the Mass that was due to start soon after the attack, and the first afternoon Mass, the 6.30pm Mass that day went ahead, and normal church activities, including daily Mass, resumed the next day.

Will the tragedy serve as a wake-up call for FoRB in Indonesia ahead next year’s presidential elections?

Perhaps this awful tragedy, and the beautiful response from many Muslims to Indonesia’s worst terrorist attack in recent years, will serve as a wake-up call, along with the 100,000-strong demonstration organized by radical Islamists against Jakarta’s popular former Governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known as ‘Ahok’, in December 2016 – the largest in Indonesia’s history. Ahok, a Christian who was jailed in May last year for two years on politically and religiously motivated blasphemy charges, had been expected to be re-elected Governor, until his political rivals played the religion card, defeated him electorally and put him in prison.

“If these are wake-up calls, they are long overdue, and their effects are still to be seen.”

If these are wake-up calls, they are long overdue, and their effects are still to be seen. Next year’s presidential elections are already proving a test-case. It is alarming that the incumbent, President Joko Widodo (Jokowi), widely assumed by most civil society activists, human rights defenders, moderate Muslims and religious minorities to be their defender, has chosen as his running mate the man who signed the fatwa that landed Jokowi’s friend and Jakarta’s popular former Governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama ‘Ahok’, in jail for two years on politically and religiously motivated blasphemy charges..

Maru’f Amin, a 75 year-old conservative cleric and head of the Indonesian Ulama Council (MUI), has a history of religiously intolerant edicts. Choosing him as his vice-presidential candidate might, as Jokowi’s defenders argue, may be a clever political move to neutralize the ‘religion factor’ in the election and contain the voices of intolerance. Jokowi’s rival, former General Prabowo Subianto, was expected to build a coalition supported by radical Islamists and to cast doubt on Jokowi’s Islamic credentials. By choosing such a prominent cleric as his ally, Jokowi may have pre-empted that tactic.

But human rights activists are concerned about the implications of co-opting such a voice of intolerance. And the mere fact that Jokowi felt the need to do this signals that Indonesia’s religious tolerance is under increasing pressure. Identity politics, and the “instrumentalisation of religion,” is becoming more intense, according to the general secretary of the Communion of Churches in Indonesia (PGI), Reverend Gomar Gultom. “The seed of radicalization,” he added, “has spread throughout all Indonesia.”

“But human rights activists are concerned about the implications of co-opting such a voice of intolerance. And the mere fact that Jokowi felt the need to do this signals that Indonesia’s religious tolerance is under increasing pressure.”

Maru’f Amin, after all, is not only the man who signed the fatwa that put Ahok in jail, he was also involved in drafting the 2008 anti-Ahmadiyya decree. The Ahmadiyya, an Islamic sect regard by some Muslims as heretical, is under increasing pressure. In recent years their community has experienced periodic violence and displacement. In Depok, a suburb of Jakarta, their mosque has been forcibly sealed by the local authorities. I visited the Ahmadiyya in Depok, two days before travelling to Surabaya, and they told me that the previous week 15 local government officials, police and representatives of MUI came to order them to cease all activities, including prayer gatherings in the courtyard outside the mosque.

Throughout Indonesia, in addition to the Ahmadiyya, Shi’a, Buddhists, Confucianists and indigenous traditional believers face increasing restrictions. Hundreds of Christian churches have been forced to close, even though they are legally registered, and regulations regarding construction of places of worship are restrictive. Although the number of State-initiated incidents has significantly decreased during Jokowi’s government, he has not yet been able to resolve cases that existed before he became president. “There are no new significant cases, but no justice for old cases,” Reverend Gultom told me. According to the Wahid Foundation’s latest report, while the number of State-sponsored cases has decreased, incidents by non-State actors have increased, particularly in terms of hate speech, restrictions and intimidation.

““There are no new significant cases, but no justice for old cases,” Reverend Gultom told me.”

Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation, but it is not an Islamic state. Constitutionally it gives equal recognition at least to six major faiths – Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism – enshrined in the philosophy of ‘Pancasila’, and by tradition it has protected religious pluralism. That tradition is under increasing threat. Not every religious conservative or voice of intolerance is a suicide bomber, but there is an urgent need to strengthen those Muslims who will defend the rights of minorities.

As the Wahid Foundation’s Alamsiyah M Djafar told me, many Indonesians still want a moderate, pluralistic society. However, he added, “if intolerance increases, the threat of radicalism increases, and that will change the face of Indonesia.”

By Benedict Rogers, CSW’s East Asia Team Leader and author of CSW’s 2014 report ‘Indonesia: Pluralism in Peril – The rise of religious intolerance across the archipelago’.

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